October 20, 2011

Sync Relief

If anyone has gone onto Apple’s website recently, you will have noticed that the page is taken up with an image of the late Steve Jobs.  For my part I hope that image remains for as long as possible.  Sadly as of this writing , it has been changed.

Apple computers from the start has been a company devoted to not only profit, but to the betterment of life in today’s hectic world.  They have provided us with new ways to accomplish our tasks.  Also they made it easier to do this.

To quote Mike Johnston of “The Online Photography” At times I’ve reflected that I am that guy who he intended to enable with his innovations. I was the creative type who was uninterested in computers and had little aptitude for them. . . . Steve Jobs didn’t create the computer age, but he enabled people like me to share in it. This statement reflects my opinion perfectly, as I am sure many many others.

This may seem a funny way for a review of another product to begin.  But the point here is that not only was Apple a company making good products and servicing the public, there are others.  The subject of this review is of a product of one such company.  The company is PocketWizard and the product is the “Flex TT5-Nikon and AC3 ZoneController.

Having been lucky enough to have made my living in photography for thirty-five years now, certain developments have come along that in some ways mirrored the innovations set forth by Jobs and Apple.  The use of strobe lighting has always been a boom to still photography.  With strobes photographers were allowed to emulate lighting as used in the motion pictures, but without the huge size of the movie lights.  Then the technology began to trickle down to the very small hotshoe strobe / flashes.  Now true portability was a reality.  Go anywhere, no need for a power source, just some plain batteries and you were good to go.

One thing has plagued the use of all strobes though.  Getting the damn things to fire.  The old connection of using a PC cord (a 3.5mm, (1/8 inch connector, from Prontor/Compur) connecting the camera’s shutter mechanism to the strobe/flash or small electrical contacts  in the hotshoe of the camera.  The latter rarely gave problems, the former almost always gave problems.  So if using a “hotshoe” type flash directly mounted to the camera, all was good.  However trying to mount a “studio” type strobe head directly to the camera was an impossibility.  Or taking the “hotshoe flash” off of the camera for more directional lighting, a PC cord was needed and became the weakest link in the system.  Needless to say the use of the PC cord was at best frustrating.  Purchasing them was usually in the plural form.

Time and technology has been marching forward.  The hotshoe flashes got better and better.  Coupled with the digital camera’s ability to shoot at higher ISO’s then before, made the hotshoe flash more of a viable tool for the professional.  Though something needed to be done about the PC cord.

Along came the infrared triggering devices.  Much like the auto focusing systems on the cameras, the infrared trigger sends out an infrared beam, which is received by a sensor on the flash and presto the strobe/flash fires remotely, yahoo!  No damn PC cord tangling between the camera and strobes and needing to be replaced all of the time.  Great huh?  But wait this system also has a lot of problems and is far from fool proof.

For one the distance must be fairly close from the infrared device to the strobe/flash.  Second the ambient light cannot be too bright or else it obstructs the infrared connection.  Thirdly there needs to be an “in-line” sight of infrared trigger device to the strobe/flash units.  Okay so what we have  here is, no hiding of the flash behind something, there cannot be too much ambient light and the two respective units must be fairly close to each other.  In other words the situations are somewhat limiting.

Now comes more new innovations.  The radio strobe triggers.  What can they do?  Well for one they extend the distance from trigger device to strobe unit (s), the ambient light has no effect on them and last no line of sight is required.  Yep that’s right they see through walls and such.  Any problems?  Kind of.  We have to walk over and adjust each strobe/flash unit in their power outputs.  Yeah okay I know my father had to walk five miles in knee high snow to get to school.  So what is a few meters of walking compared to that?  For one, sometimes it is a lot more then a few meters and as the old saying goes “time is money” and we all need some of that.

Finally now to the review.   After years and years of frustrations dealing with PC cords, Nikon’s CLS infrared systems and others, PocketWizard came up with a real solution.  The FlexTT5, MiniTT1 and the AC3 ZoneController.

Having gone from commercial photography to photographing wedding, I found the problem even more frustrating then before (no time for making repairs for one).  So a few months ago I took the plunge and bought four FlexTT5 units and an AC3 ZoneController.  The first thing on my agenda was to make my new PocketWizards units not work.  What?  Yep I wanted to see what would make them not work, so that when I am in the field . . . .

So in my second floor office I set up my camera with a FlexTT5 unit in place and took an SB900 Nikon flash and place it in our garden shed, inside of a box hidden form the window.  The distance is about twenty meters or sixty feet.  I tripped the trigger and nothing, oh no not again.  Check to make sure everything is on and . . . whoops forgot to turn the unit on the camera on.  Try again, it works, then again yep and again and again all working.  The tried all kinds of other arrangements, with all working.  That is when I remembered to turn everything on.  So now it was time to the AC3 ZoneController (the part where I do not have to walk to each unit to make power adjustments).  Set-up and shoot okay all three of my SB900’s are firing (all hidden form in-line sight).  Now make some adjustments to each unit using the simplified A B C channel program.  Just make sure each flash and FlexTT5 is set to a particular channel and then make your adjustments with the AC3 (which is mounted on top of the FlexTT5 which in turn is mounted atop the camera).  Tried a few different combinations, but saw no real difference in the shots.  Did I manage to make them fail?  No!  I forgot to set the SB900’s to the TTL (regardless if you are using manual or TTL for flash control, the flash heads must be set to the “TTL” mode).  Changed it and all work perfectly.  Then what you get is the ability to control and program each of your remote flash heads in three different groupings.  Whether you choose to use the Manual or TTL mode.  For me just miraculous!

Bottom line in my experiments is this.  Making sure everything is turned on, first the flash head, then the Flex unit attached, set the flash to TTL mode, turn Flex unit and camera.  After two months use the PocketWizards have proved to be if not idiot proof at least fool proof.

During a recent wedding shoot an SB900 and FlexTT5 were mounted high up on a stand, when bringing it down, both units came off the umbrella adapter and fell to the ground.  Neither the flash or PocketWizard sustained any damage whatsoever.  Truly impressive given the height and hardness of the ground.

Another beauty of the FLexTT5 is that it is a “transceiver” meaning that it will send out the radio signal and also receive them.  On the bottom of each Flex unit is a hotshoe attachment and also on the top of the unit, so no PC cords involved at all.  FlexTT5 attaches to camera, flash attaches to Flex or AC3 to Flex and it all works as if the flash or zone controller is directly attached to the hotshoe of the camera.  If you remember earlier I said rarely was there a problem when a flash is directly mounted to the camera’s hotshoe and there isn’t.  The FlexTT5 uses two AA batteries (one of the most common types) a big plus.  The MiniTT1 in order to keep to it’s diminutive size, it uses a smaller and harder to find battery and is the reason I opted to go with only the FlexTT5 units.

Another truly admirable aspect is that the FlexTT5 and MiniTT1 is not only built in a non compromising manner construction wise, but also in regards to it becoming obsolete in a technological manner.  The people at PocketWizard have enabled their units to keep up advances in technology, by providing firmware updates.  also all of their units work with the older models.

But wait there is more.  If the beginning of this review was a little strange to you, there was a reason for the comparison.  A little over a month ago, I sold one of my photos to a person in the U.S., as part of that sales, I received another PocketWizard unit.  This time however it was a Power ST4, which enables remote control of my Elinchrom RX strobe.  What I did not know at the time was that units from North America and units form Europe work off of different radio frequencies.  After contacting the purchaser of my photo, he sent me a copy of his invoice from where he got the Power ST4 in the U.S..  The 30 day limit was already up.  So just on a chance I sent an email to PocketWizard.  In a few days I was contacted by a representative.  Whom was very sympathetic to my problem.  After another round of emails, he instructed me to send my N. American frequency unit back to PocketWizard and he had their Dutch distributor send me a European frequency unit.  This all took place in just a few days.

In this day and age, that a company would go through the trouble that PocketWizard did for me is just astonishing.  Here you have a product that really works.  Is built with the intention and disregard to “planned obsolescence” and the company provides this type of customer service, that for the most part is just a memory today.  As I see it, very similar to the late Mr. Jobs and the philosophy he instilled at Apple Computers.

So thank you PocketWizard for restoring my faith and keeping a honorable tradition alive!

Taken from my office with a 85mm lens, a distance of about 20 meters to the garden shed.  AC3 set to “0”. Then +3 and -3.  Raining of course.